Legally Trapped: UK Legislation Concerning Migrant Domestic Workers Regresses Whilst Middle Eastern Initiatives Look Progressive

Prior to April 2012 the UK was considered a (comparatively) progressive and well regarded country with respect to its national legislation surrounding Migrant Domestic Workers (MDWs). MDWs enter a country with an employer to work in a private household, typically responsible for tasks such as childcare, housework and cooking. The nature of their work, as an employee in a private household, means that MDWs are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse if they are unlucky enough to work for manipulative and cruel individuals. Thus, if society is to protect these individuals from those who believe that they can exploit and abuse, strong and practical legal protections are crucial. In 2010 elements of the legal protections available to MDWs in the UK were praised by the international community as examples of good practice (albeit amongst recommendations that further protections be implemented, indicating that although progressive, UK legal protection of MDWs still was not complete). What is clear though is that, in 2010 in terms of its national legislation, the UK had got some things right.

In contrast, Middle Eastern States were highlighted as ‘bad’ examples; states that should look to the example of ‘good practice’ states, such as the UK. Much of this critique stemmed from the use of the ‘Kafala’ system which was the basis for much of the legislation concerning MDWs in many Middle Eastern countries. Legislation based upon the ‘Kafala’ system ties a MDW to a specific employer or sponsor in that country, meaning that the MDW does not have the right to change employer. To illustrate; MDWs in Lebanon who are vulnerable to physical and psychological abuse, and realities such as little (or no) pay, extreme working hours and poor living conditions, are yet unable to legally leave these abusive employers. Heavy criticism rained down on Lebanon in 2010 with Western states such as Canada, Norway, France and Poland calling on Lebanon to replace the current system with one that complied with international standards. It was noted that due to the tie between employer and employee a total dependency of the worker on the employer is created which in itself creates total vulnerability and opens the door wide to exploitation. Crucially, the right to change employer was highlighted as being instrumental in ensuring that migrant domestic workers were able to escape abusive situations. The fact that a MDW could change employer in the UK was highly regarded; the defining difference between the ‘Kafala’ system and that in the UK.

However, in 2011 the UK began to tarnish its reputation in the international community. It joined countries such as Sudan and El Salvador in refusing to commit itself to international legislation which would provide protection of labour rights (e.g. National Minimum Wage and maximum working hours) for MDWs. 172 states voted in favour of this piece of international legislation; the UK was one of only 11 countries which chose not to.

This was the top of a slippery slope which has resulted in drastic legislative changes affecting MDWs living and working in the UK; with a government move towards, rather than away from, a system similar to the ‘Kafala’ system so highly criticised by Western States.

The fundamental change in law was simple. From April 2012 those coming to the UK on an Overseas Domestic Worker Visa would no longer be entitled to change their employer (other changes were also introduced; for more information click here). With one swift move, the UK government wiped out one of the most important protections available to MDWs which ensured that they would be able to leave an employer who may exploit and abuse. The ‘Kafala’ system, criticised by many members of the international community, is now, in one crucial and defining way, indistinguishable from the system that we have had in the UK since April 2012.

Kalayaan, a charity dedicated to offering practical assistance, and advocating for the rights of MDWs working in the UK, has seen first-hand the results of this change in law. With the one year anniversary of the legal changes Kalayaan produced a brief which highlights their findings. Unsurprisingly, just as with the ‘Kafala’ system in Lebanon, those on the new ‘tied’ visa are statistically more likely to be exploited and abused than those who have the right to change employer. It is estimated that in 2008 at least 95 MDWs died in Lebanon; horrifyingly 40 of these were suicides and 24 were caused by workers falling from high buildings, often whilst trying to escape employers. This level of desperation is not surprising when Kalayaan’s statistics are considered; of those MDWs in the UK on the new ‘tied’ visa 100% were paid less than £100 per week, with 62% being paid no salary at all, 85% did not have their own room, 96% were not allowed out unsupervised, and 100% did not have a single day off.

As the UK regresses, it seems that, paradoxically, countries in the Middle East are showing progressive movements away from the problems of the ‘Kafala’ system. Initiatives in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, although of mixed strength and success, are developing, and crucially, they are all making changes which see them moving away from the ‘tied’ visa system and towards systems where MDWs have the right to change their employers. The UK should be ashamed that whilst other States with poor human rights records are making progressive steps, it, a supposed leader in this area, is in fact regressing, whilst also falling behind in the international arena.

Lobbying, campaigning or volunteering for charities which work for the rights of this largely invisible and highly vulnerable group of people will help in the struggle to ensure that we do not allow the UK government to continue its regressive movements down a dangerous and slippery slope. Public ignorance and apathy of such issues remains a crucial factor in the success of this regressive legislation which detrimentally affects the lives of hard-working, poorly paid and vulnerable people. If you are not able to spare the time to lobby, campaign or volunteer then I urge you simply to better inform yourself and others about the issues faced today by members of our workforce. An informed public is an important step towards a more progressive society.


For a fully referenced copy of this article please click here

Rosie Boggis

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